Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
I’m late with my blog this week, which seems appropriate for today’s topic since I’m almost always writing my holiday greeting cards at the last minute.
Hanukah has just begun (Happy Hanukah to those of you who celebrate it!)
Christmas is two weeks away (Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate it!)
Kwanzaa follows right after Christmas (Happy Kwanzaa to those of you who celebrate it!)
The Solstice arrives next week (Happy Solstice to those of you who celebrate it!)
And to all of you who celebrate other holidays this time of year that I missed, and to those of you who celebrate none of these holidays, Seasons Greetings!
How we greet each other at this time of year has been a bone of contention, to coin a phrase. Some claim we’re stealing their Christmas if store clerks greet customers with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Old-fashioned office Christmas parties have generally become holiday parties.
It might complicate things a bit, though, if we noticed that the word “holiday” originates from “holy day.” So I’m not sure changing to “holiday” is as inclusive as we might want (yes, meanings change, and most people don’t associate “holiday” with “holy day” anymore, but I like noticing such things).
When I write my holiday cards (which I have still been doing on paper with some old friends and family members, in spite of the more eco-friendly online alternatives), I start with a selection of cards with different greetings, including always one “Seasons Greetings” for those whose preferences I don’t know or whose non-religious status I do know.
But I’ve never done a photo Christmas/Holiday card. I’ve received some wonderful ones over the years, especially from my artist friend Pat who incorporates the family headshots into some wonderfully funny painted winter scenes every year. And I’m always happy to see family photo cards. They help me keep track of the growth of children and families who I don’t see as much over the years.
Those family cards are also a bone of contention for some, and this year I’ve learned about a twist on them on Twitter—single people posting their family’s couple-loving, single-isolating family Christmas cards. Family photos full of joy for all the couples in the family, plus the one long single person off to the side.
Supposedly, the originator of pointing out the single-person-in-the-family-Christmas-card was @kbobby_22, who posted his own family photo.
For those of you not on Twitter, or if my Twitter images don't load, Lisa Gutierrez wrote a story for the Kansas City Starfeaturing some of the best photos. In the original, each couple is holding a sign--parents' sign saying "Excited," surrounded by a couple whose sign says "Expecting," another whose sign says "Engaged," and @kbobby_22 with a sign saying "Egg Salad." In Emily Seawright's homage, her own sign says just "Emily."
Sure enough, even family Christmas cards are loaded with meanings we don't always notice until someone points it out. My favorites in this new Twitter meme are the ones who post their old, ordinary, usual family Christmas cards, no signs added, only now we can see it. Now we can see the happy couples in the family embracing and embraced, with the one solo member stuck on the side.
Tweets are showing the humor in the situation, though the sting obviously still remains. It's not fun being the egg salad instead of the engaged or expecting or excited. But folks are clearly having fun with it, many using it to celebrate their singledom.
Once we notice something--an underlying statement in a family photo--we can choose what to do with that noticing. I love the humor that Emily Seawright and @kbobby_22 show in their tweets, and the many others who've followed. Especially because, once we notice something, we can't un-notice it.
Now I see it everywhere--the family shots with the single person to the side, behind the couch, hands in pockets instead of around someone. Nothing malicious intended there, I'm pretty sure. But boy, it does show us something about how we see people.
So there's another complication of holiday greeting cards to pay attention to. Include the holiday--or non-holy-day--that the recipient celebrates. Take family photos that show just how much you value every individual in the group.
I still haven't sent out my cards, but there will be no photo again this year. There's another thing to notice--who does and doesn't use family photos for Christmas cards. Does it depend on having children, whether newborn or adult?
So much to notice, once you start noticing. It's exhausting. As if we don't already have enough challenges this time of year, just getting things done. But noticing--and pointing out to others what you've noticed--is how change happens. Lots of noticing and calling out going on around the world right now. Notice it, tell others about it, change it.
Meanwhile, we can laugh at the single people statement photos on Twitter. We can send out our cards, paper or electronic, with appropriately chosen messages. And we can enjoy each other's company face to face, no photo needed, and embrace one and all.
So here's to my readers this season. I notice you, and I wish for each of you time spent with people who make you feel good about yourself and peaceful time with yourself.
By now, I expect many of you have seen the New York Times article on a white supremacist (he says he should be called a “white nationalist”) and, I hope, the parody of that article in The Atlantic. (My thanks to my friend and colleague Frank Farmer for the links).
The article in the Times, written by Richard Fausset, seems a typical profile, a genre my journalism students have taught me about. They’ve been assigned to write profiles in high school to capture the qualities of a person, to use the quotidian details of everyday life to show what the person is like. But they’ve always described writing profiles of people they admired, or stars in high school, or a local character.
Writing a profile of a white supremacist creates a similar effect, and that’s the problem. The whole idea of a profile is to make the person seem normal. Writing a profile of this Nazi sympathizer asserts his normality. That’s what the profile genre does. The author may have been trying to make another point, but you can't fight the genre's effect.
You can see that normalizing in the article's title: "Voice of Hate in America's Heartland." He's not from someplace special like the east coast or California, but from the middle of the US of A. The original article described the Ohioan’s bigotry in casual comments amidst a dinner at Applebee’s and lunch at Panera’s. It described how he and his wife dressed, like normal people. How they ate, like normal people. What their wedding was like, like normal people. There was even a mixed race couple at his wedding, and he’s okay with that being their thing, he says. He likes Twin Peaks and Seinfeld. His tattoo is as apple pie as his bigotry.
Online he praised the “comrades” at the Charlottesville rally where a woman was killed. He added “Hail Victory” in English instead of its German translation, “Sieg heil”
Hence the Atlantic’s parody, by James Hamblin, entitled, “Nazis Are Just Like You and Me, Except They're Nazis.”
I’ve written before about how words matter, that the choice of words we use to label things, people, and actions make a difference, but in a way we might not always notice.
The same is true for genre. Genres matter. The choice of genre we use to account for things, people, and actions make a difference, but in a way we might not always notice.
Choosing to profile this white nationalist is choosing to make him normal. That’s what profiles do.
Since the profiled white nationalist liked picturing what America would have looked like if the Germans had won World War II—happy white people and swastikas everywhere—let’s picture what this guy would have looked like if the genre had not been a profile.
Suppose that the reporter instead had chosen to write an investigative article, with photos of him and his signs at white supremacist rallies instead of him and his cart at the grocery store? With interviews with experts in bigotry and Nazism instead of interviews with his wife and his band buddy?
The writer says he wanted to see what made this man be a white nationalist, but he didn’t achieve that goal. How could he, in a profile? Unless normal living makes bigots of all of us, then tracking the normality of this man’s daily life is not going to discover the roots of his hatred. That’s more the goal of a critical biography, or investigative reporting, or academic research and its translation into science reporting.
By mimicking the feature of profiles, the Atlantic parody pushes back against normalizing Nazis and hatred. It calls out the Times’ claim that they are doing a service by helping us see how common such hatred has now become. The parody uses many of the same words and phrasings but even moreso the same structure, tone, appeals, and details.
Demonstrating that it’s not just the words that normalize; it’s the genre.
Because a profile doesn’t just show ordinariness; the profile creates ordinariness. How bad can he be? He’s just like us.
Well, he’s not like me. And I reject the implied generic claim that just because we both like Seinfeld we are both the same. His bigotry and hatred are what made him special to the reporter. His bigotry and hatred should have been what the reporter featured.
Contrast the man’s statements in his interviews with the man’s statements on social media.
Genre makes a difference there, too.
The spread of hatred on social media has also normalized it. Tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram photos, and on to the newer platforms—these spaces can be used to share and like family photos, funny cat videos, quotations from ongoing events, or political rants. Setting racist slogans and images of swastikas alongside our funny videos, birthday wishes, and happy photos makes them shared, by their very definition. We can delete the posts, unfriend people, or avert our eyes, but the genre makes them common among "friends."
What might not be acceptable in a conversation becomes usual in an online thread. That’s part of what is making users demand more filtering on social platforms. But it’s not just the content that needs filtering. The words alone don’t do it. It’s the genres those media are used for.
Some genres are meant to spread hate, bigotry, racism, fear. How do we filter those out?
The existence and rampant spread of those genres of hatred make the Times’ profile even worse. A profile isn’t meant to spread hatred. It isn’t meant to normalize bigotry. But it will normalize whatever its subject, and that’s what happened here.
The writer should have chosen his genre more carefully. As the parodist did.
What are your genres making normal in your life? What do the genres you read and write and speak and compose do? Is that what you want?
Let’s hear it for genre awareness.
Misconduct, Harassment, Abuse, Assault, Rape
In today’s newspapers landing in my driveway:
U.S. Senator Al Franken is accused of “sexual misconduct” and charged with “grabbing” or “groping” women
U.S. Representative John Conyers is accused of “sexual harassment” for “harassing” employees.
In the news of recent weeks, Harvey Weinstein was accused of “sexual harassment,” “sexual abuse,” and “sexual assault,” and Kevin Spacey, too, was accused of “sexual assault.”
In the past, Donald Trump described how he would “start kissing” women and “grab ‘em” by their [genitals].
I discussed in a previous post the significance of whether Trump’s actions were called “locker room talk” or “sexual assault.” Now the different wordings have become much more nuanced.
We all might ask, “WHAT are these men DOING????!!”
But we who notice words might also ask, “What are these men doing, and why are they called so many different things?”
I’m sure that lawyers would answer that question in technical ways that might clarify some distinctions. I haven’t found any reporting that Franken “harassed” women, for example, and I imagine that’s because his groping/grabbing was not against women who worked for him.
Conyers’ primary accuser, on the other hand, was a staffer, and an ethics investigation has begun into his potential “sexual harassment.” Weinstein, too, is accused of “harassment” and much more against actresses and others over whom he had the power of a job.
So “harassment” might be particular to the workplace.
I’m sure some of the other terms have important legal definitions—what constitutes “assault” versus “rape,” for example—but in the popular press and social media, the different terms also carry more subtle connotations, nuances of meaning with emotional attachments.
“Misconduct” to me sounds like some specific actions rather than a pattern. In the university, when someone is charged with “academic misconduct” or an athlete or coach with “misconduct,” they’re being charged with particular actions that were inappropriate, unethical, or illegal. They did something bad, at least once.
“Harassment” is a pattern, a continued practice of doing bad things. “Misconduct” can be a mistake. “Harassment” signals a character flaw.
The Oxford English Dictionary—oh that trusted OED, source of word history and definitions—defines “misconduct” as “Improper or unacceptable conduct or behaviour. Frequently, esp. in Law (euphem.): adultery or other illicit sexual activity.”
“Harassment” the OED defines as “The action of harassing, or the fact of being harassed; vexation, worry.”
Hmm. Maybe that doesn’t support the nuances I was seeing. Still, to me, “harassment” has a habitual nature to it, something that’s repeated.
Then there’s whether the harasser is abusing or assaulting. I couldn’t find any clear difference in when an action was referred to as “sexual abuse” or “sexual assault.” The latter seems much more legally actionable to me, but similar actions were sometimes referred to by both terms. Is what Trump says he did “assault”? I’d say so. Is it “abuse”? Does that require more of a pattern of habitual action, again?
The OED doesn’t help much since it defines “abuse” with “sexual assault” as one example of its meaning.
All this talk about words, words, words may seem to miss the point. Lots of men have been doing horrible things to lots of women. That’s the point.
But remember that words matter. All the violations matter, and they’re all horrendous. But how much of that horrendousness do we acknowledge with the words used to describe them?
How much more habitual does it seem if a man “harasses” a woman rather than commits “misconduct”?
How much more violent does it seem if a man “assaults” a woman rather than “abuses” her? “Assault” gets a man thrown in jail. Well, some men anyway. “Abuse” is awful, maybe something more ongoing?
How much more of a personal violation is it if a man “gropes” a woman instead of “grabs” her?
But how many different words exist to describe what's been happening? In the end, all these stories, whatever the words, communicate the same thing--in our society, whether once or habitually, in the workplace or on a bus or plane, men have been using their power over women in despicable ways. Women have remained silent publicly, for the most part, until now.
Now, the message is clear, whatever the words. Grope, grab, abuse, assault, harass, rape.
Just stop it.
It’s not just apologies that need rules for doing them well.
Last year at this time, I wrote about the fact that Thanksgiving is the only holiday with a verb in it, that tells us how to celebrate it. Give thanks.
W. J. Cameron: "Thanksgiving, after all, is a word of action."
I shared some of the ideas others had suggested for giving thanks at the holiday celebration—taking turns around the table, writing down one thing you’re thankful for and sharing them, and other thankful demonstrations that would fit perfectly in a Hallmark Christmas movie (I’m a sucker for a good heart-warming Hallmark Christmas movie).
I also wrote about how thankful I was for the help I’d been getting as I recovered from shoulder surgery (a huge thanks again to all those great people, who would have fit well into that Hallmark movie where the townspeople step up to help the independent woman who insists on going it alone! Update: my athletic injury is completely healed after six months of physical therapy—thanks Andrea, my super physical therapist!)
Less fitting in the Hallmark movie (unless said by the evil corporate drone or the self-involved boyfriend who’s about to be dumped) is the “humble brag” that’s a thank you for seeing how awesome I am!
“Thank you to all the students who wrote such nice things on their evaluations. You help keep me going.”
“Thanks to all the colleagues who wrote support letters for my big award. I wouldn’t have received it without you”
“Big shout out to Susie, our wonderful travel agent, who planned such an incredible two week trip through Italy”
Before I get sucked into all the generic markers of a Hallmark Christmas movie (surely a topic for another post soon), I want to focus on the simpler version of thanks that I wrote about—the every day “thanks” we say to people we encounter all day long, maybe sometimes without really meaning it.
Thanks again to Deepak Singh for his article in the Atlantic about the differences between saying thanks in the US and in India.
I have been living in the United States for more than a decade, and I now say thank you about 50 times a day. Most of the time, I do it without thinking. I say thank you to the bus driver who takes me from point A to point B along with 20 other people. He usually can’t even hear me. I say thank you to the cashier at the coffee shop. I say thank you to the stranger who holds the door open for me at a restaurant. I say thank you to my wife and my 5-year-old daughter several times a day for various things: turning the volume of the television down or up, flicking the light switch on or off, asking me if I want to eat something or do something with them.” --Deepak Singh
Deepak Singh contrasted our everyday thanks to the deep meaningfulness of saying thank you in India, something you do only with sincerity and a desire to do something in return.
I’ve been trying to shift my casual “thanks” to a genuine “thank you,” and I think I’ve figured out a few “rules” for making the simple thanks register a bit more on the person thanked and have a bit more impact. I think of these as rules for thanking like Harriet Lerner’s rules for apologizing well (here’s her book and my posts on apologies).
Here were her rules for a good apology, from her column in Psychology Today "You Call THAT an Apology,":
So let me give it a try.
What makes a good everyday thank you:
Simple, right? "I really am sincerely thankful that you picked up that pen I dropped." "I genuinely thank you for pouring coffee for me." "I thank you for holding the door open for me when you saw how many bags I was carrying."
I’ve already been working on getting rid of the sarcastic thanks: “Thanks for letting the door slam in my face, pal.” And I’m getting better at skipping the thank you buts. No more “thanks for washing my cup but I wasn’t finished with it yet,” If I don’t like someone cleaning up after me or opening the door for me, I just don’t say thank you. I can say something else, but not an insincere “thanks.”
Being specific about the action doesn’t take many extra words. “Thanks for getting my pen!” “Thank you for the coffee.” But I find being specific usually goes along with the last requirement of a good everyday thank you—making a connection with the person you’re thanking. And that takes a little bit more effort.
Connecting with the person you’re thanking usually takes only eye contact. Looking the person in the eye as she hands your pen back when you say the genuine, “Thank you.” Pausing at the door long enough to look at the person holding it—or getting them to look up from their phone—before saying straight to their eyes, “Thank you!”
Adding some enthusiasm usually helps make that thank you more meaningful. We’re so used to tossing off “thanks” hither and yon that we can tell when someone is genuinely and with awareness thanking us for what we’ve done. So often just “Thank you!” with that exclamation mark spoken aloud makes a good everyday thanks.
Now be warned: just as Lerner says an apologizer shouldn’t expect forgiveness, a thanker shouldn’t expect a “you’re welcome.” Besides, you’re much more likely to get a “No problem.” And that’s part of my point here. It WAS a problem. You DID do something that I appreciate. Just let me thank you for it. (I know, I know, the “no problem” is just another way of completing the exchange, but I’m talking about having “thank you” have more of an impact on the person thanked).
So I like it when my sincere-specific-with-eye-contact-and-enthusiasm “thank you” gets a non-automatic, not-routine response of any kind. “You’re welcome,” said sincerely, is a good one. But don’t expect it. It’s just nice when it happens.
Why go to all the trouble? After all, it’s not really like an apology, where you have done something bad and need to acknowledge the hurt you’ve caused. But someone has done something good, even just a little thing, and it helps to acknowledge the pleasure the person has caused.
Our daily interactions are the ones that make a difference in our moods, our sense of connection with others, our social expectations and even our beliefs about the goodness (or badness) of people. Daily kindnesses can go a long way, and so can daily acknowledgment of those kindnesses. (I warned you I could be a bit sappy as well as independent. Cue the Hallmark movie music)
Since we already in America say thank you all the time, as Singh pointed out, let’s make it count.
So yes, I hope you can use Thanksgiving to give thanks to your families and friends and the people important to you.
And I hope we can use every day to give thanks to the strangers we encounter and the little acts of kindness in our shared inhabiting of the world.
Day to day, let’s give good thanks.
Happy thanksgiving. And thank you, dear readers, for reading to the end!